Over the last forty years, U.S. workers have experienced stagnant or falling wages, growing wage inequality, and an increasing incidence of low and poverty-wage jobs. Young workers who lack advanced degrees and workers of color have been the hardest hit. In this new issue of RSF, cofunded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and edited by economist David R. Howell and sociologist Arne L. Kalleberg, an interdisciplinary group of contributors analyze the state of job quality, especially for low-wage workers and those in nonstandard work arrangements. Howell and Kalleberg’s introductory article suggests that leading explanations for worsening job quality can be organized into three broad views of the labor market: a competitive market model; a contested markets model, where wage-setting takes place in firms that operate in imperfect markets and where employers have substantial bargaining power; and social-institutional approaches that underscore the importance of social, political, and structural forces.
In their introduction to the journal issue, Howell and Kalleberg include a chart that illustrates the quality of low-wage and decent wage jobs. The table below shows that low wage workers fare poorly on all job quality indicators; they are less likely to receive health and pension benefits or paid time off and are less likely to have control over scheduling their hours than their better-paid peers. Those with higher wages were much more likely to belong to unions.
As a result of technological changes and outsourcing, unpredictable and uncertain work schedules are now widespread. Contributors Cathy Yang Liu and Luísa Nazareno demonstrate that workers in nonstandard employment arrangements earn less and work fewer hours than full-time workers. Susan Lambert, Julia Henly, and Jaesung Kim demonstrate that in addition to the financial insecurity caused by precarious work schedules, those who experience shortfalls in hours are increasingly distrustful of societal institutions.Other contributors examine job quality for women and people of color. David S. Pedulla and Katariina Mueller-Gastell study the rates at which various groups of workers apply for nonstandard jobs, and find that black and Hispanic workers are overrepresented in such positions.
Michael Schultz examines mobility out of low-wage work and finds that women and nonwhites are the most entrenched in such jobs. He shows that there is greater mobility out of low-wage work where unions foster the use of job ladders and pay scales. The figure below from Schultz’s article, “The Wage Mobility of Low-Wage Workers in a Changing Economy, 1968 to 2014,” shows how people’s ability to move out of low-wage work is affected by their membership in various demographic groups.
The issue recommends a slate of policies for creating better jobs, including increasing the federal minimum wage; strengthening collective and individual bargaining, especially through unions; and widening access to health insurance, paid sick and family leave, and childcare. In the absence of family-friendly policies at the federal level, sociologists Rachel Dwyer and the late Erik Olin Wright propose investments in the “social and solidarity” economy, including NGOs, nonprofit organizations, social enterprises, and worker cooperatives. This issue of RSF helps us better understand the reasons for and consequences of declining job quality and suggests policies that would protect the most vulnerable workers.